“What is Comedy? Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke.”
– Steve Martin
Self-awareness counts for a lot. So fundamental is it to the operation of the human brain that it’s often taken for granted. Yet thinking everyone has the same amount of it is just foolish; there’s a reason the term “willful ignorance” exists. The greater one’s self-awareness, the better an advantage they tend to have over those trying to pull one over on them.
I mentioned recently that my friend Megan re-introduced me Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” and it’s gotten me thinking about if the best camp is better from those blissfully unaware that they’re making it (Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, Nic Cage and Neil LaBute’s remake of The Wicker Man, R. Kelly’s first five chapters of “Trapped in the Closet” at first) or those who make it intentionally (Charles Busch, Jon Waters)? Certainly one would rather be the latter. It’s much better to be laughed with than laughed at. Plus the self-aware creator of camp is able to argue intellectual interpretation and artistic intent, thus possibly elevating camp – the interpretation of which is almost always that a work is to be interpreted and enjoyed for reasons blatantly contradictory to the creator’s intent – to the level of art.
Robert Rodriguez is guy attempting that very thing. Like his contemporary and occasional collaborator, Quentin Tarantino, Rodriguez’s film “education” was built less on traditional schooling and more on trips to the cinema. What each took away from their experiences is telling: Tarantino absorbed cinema classics and drive-in trash with equal aplomb, as such he’s built a career creative exploitative genre films with skill and vigor of a David Lean picture; Rodriguez saw the same low-budget flicks and realised that film production is based more on ingenuity than financial resources. It’s telling that when the two got together for the 2007 B-movie homage/double-feature Grindhouse, audience and critical reaction was divided over which half better succeeded: critics preferred Tarantino’s attempt to merge slasher and hot rod flicks with art-house talk-fests; audiences, for the most part, preferred Rodriguez’s humourous send-up of zombie flicks with John Carpenter-style music. Tarantino was there to be serious; Rodriguez was there to have fun.
And fun is what he has. Grindhouse also featured a collection of faux trailers for bargain-basement movies that didn’t exist. Well, Rodriguez decided to bring his to full-length life with 2010’s Machete, a Latin-flavoured take on the Cannon and Orion flicks of the ‘80s. It was an over-the-top blood bath that had to be seen to be believed. How could he possibly top it? By doing it again, of course.
Two years have passed and Machete (Danny Trejo) is still a vigilante on the run. When one of his takedowns is foiled by unknown gunmen, Machete is taken into custody ordered to be excuted. His neck is literally saved by the last-minuted intervention of the President of United States (Charlie Sheen), who sends Machete back to Mexico to execute a schizophrenic revolutionary/cartel leader (Demián Bichir) bent on launching missiles at the US.
With the help of his gun-toting ally Shé (Michelle Rodriguez) and undercover agent/beauty queen Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard), Machete must fight through a murderous madam (Sofía Vergara), a racist sheriff (William Sadler), a chameleonic hit(wo)man (Lady Gaga), and a psychic arms dealer (Mel Gibson). And the clock is ticking until the missiles are launched.
I didn’t exactly win over a lot of people when I referred to Man of Steel and Kick-Ass as two of the most pornographically violent movies I’ve seen recently. They still are. Where people seemed to have misunderstood is in thinking that I’m some sort of prude turned off by violence in and of itself (for Christ’s sake, have you read my review of Django Unchained ?). I’m not, but I have a problem with its use in stories that claim to be about heroes being better than their enemies, yet the heroes only resort to violence and murder. In a revenge fantasy like Django or any number of Paul Verhoeven films, it makes sense; in films like Man of Steel and Kick-Ass, it reeks of moral hypocrisy. This is where self-awareness comes into play.
Rodriguez makes no pretentious statements on morality in this movie, addresses no serious topic unless for comedic affect, he doesn’t expect anyone to come out this movie thinking they just saw Battleship Potemkin. I saw this film Thursday – 3 October at the Century multiplex in the Westfield in San Francisco. To our pleasant surprise, the screening was followed by a Q&A by Danny Trejo, who summed it up best: “I’ve done lots of movies where guys try to put in a message. People are always looking for the message of a movie. There’s no message here – this is fun!”
And yes, the film is violent. Gratuitously so. But then there’s that damned self-awareness I keep bringing up. The violence in this movie isn’t fetishised like in the ones I listed above, nor is it visceral and realistic, like in a Scorsese drama. No, the violence here is on par with that of a Chuck Jones animated short, but with a lot more blood. Early on Machete takes his eponymous blade in one hand and jams it into an electrical box just so he can electrocute the man he’s choking with his other hand. Another early sequence sees Machete disemboweling a man and throwing his lower intestine into the spinning blade of a helicopter until he is pulled into it and chopped to pieces. This is the start of an entire ten-minute sequence that sees even more baddies chopped up by helicopter blades, knife blades, and the propeller blades of a speed boat. And it is the funniest thing you will see for quite some time.
The cast are quite a thing to behold. Rodriguez has spent the last decade turning stunt casting into a real science. He mixes big name stars with tabloid-fodder has-beens to create some of the most colourful characters this side of Wonderland. That’s why you can often expect to see a box office golden boy like Johnny Depp alongside then-pariah Mickey Rourke. It’s why you’ll see Bruce Willis facing off against the likes of tv stars Naveen Andrews, Freddy Rodriguez, and Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas. And it’s why the first Machete boasted the casting of such box office poison as Lindsay Lohan and Steven Seagal.
With ubiquitous tough guy Danny Trejo once again in the lead (during the Q&A, when asked how many films he’s done, he shrugged and guessed “probably 200”), his co-stars in Machete Kills include the returning Michelle Rodriguez and Tom Savini, Amber Heard as the undercover beauty queen. Lady Gaga – yes, THE Lady Gaga – doesn’t act so much as pose (which she does well) as one of several faces of an eccentric assassin (one of which has won an Academy Award). Modern Family star Sofía Vergara plays a revenge-obsessed madam named “Maneater” who, as you can see in the poster, has a machine gun bra. Of course she does. And then there are the pariahs: Charlie Sheen (here credited by his birth name of “Carlos Estévez”) plays the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, womanising Commander-in-Chief; Mel Gibson rounds out the cast as Voz, a psychic (and psychotic) arms dealer. Normally I’d try to avoid a movie featuring these two substance-abusing wife-beaters – the latter of whom is a racist anti-Semite – but given that the characters they play are morally reprehensible, it works here. I still have no interest in sharing a beer with either one, but they make good assholes onscreen.
All of these pieces add up to a whole that does not have a single dull moment in its 108-minute running time. Machete Kills is a movie that is not only in on its own joke, but is encouraging you to laugh along with it. Rodriguez isn’t filtering high artistic sensibilities through ill-regarded genres like Tarantino, Rodriguez is just taking those same genres, finding what works about them, and turning the volume up to “11”. This isn’t a slow train through wine country, it’s a rollercoaster. So strap in, raise your hand, and enjoy the ride.